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Charles Bukowski Biography | Poet

Photo of Charles Bukowski

Heinrich Karl (Charles) Bukowski was born in Germany on August 16, 1920. After moving to America with his parents just before he turned three, his parents began calling him by the anglicized version of his middle name, Charles, in an effort to help him become assimilated into American culture without becoming confused with his father, who had the same name. Many of his works relate to his abusive father and his acquiescing mother, and most, if not all, show an honesty of life that many other poets and authors were reluctant to put into words. His most famous works were Post Office and Ham on Rye, with poetry including . One of his postmortem books is entitled “Charles Bukowski on Writing,” and the other is entitled “Cats.” Both are collections of various writings that were found after his death. He passed away from leukemia on March 9, 1994 in Los Angeles, California.

He began writing poetry at the age of 35 after a hospital stay for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer, but he had already published numerous stories and novels. He wrote many different novels and short stories beginning at age 23, including several different volumes of prose. He continued writing both prose and poetry until his death. He would often say the motto that is on his gravestone 'don't try,' to those asking for advice on writing. He would explain that instead of trying, to just wait, and if nothing happened, to wait longer. Something was bound to happen, and if it didn't, that it was never to late to work on something else.

He worked with many different publication formats, including the underground publication 'Open City,' where he submitted at least 40 different pieces. His writing gained attention from the FBI, and although he was heavily investigated, there was nothing that was serious enough to warrant any further action by the agency. The reason behind the FBI's interest in Bukowski is that he wrote about things that are often hidden in society, such as violence, drunkenness, sexuality, prejudice and hatred, disease, death and dying. Such topics earned him a place in the genre of dirty realism.

Poverty was a theme, although often placed well in the background, in many of his writings, and the subsequent problems of inner city life. A hidden aspect seems to be that life, no matter how suppressed or rotten it becomes, is still life and should be appreciated, understood, and lived in a manner that would show that appreciation and understanding.

One of the books he wrote toward the end of his life was “The History of One Tough Motherfucker,” and in it he details the life of his rescued cat Celine, who had not only been shot, but also had been run over. With her tail lost, she was often the prop that Bukowski would use to explain to others, particularly journalists during interviews, that his writing is influenced by what happens, not just the after effects of living with what has happened, but he claimed few understood what he was attempting to explain. In short, it may be just that we all go through traumas, and some of us survive, even while being scarred to varying degrees, but there will still be moments of happiness, if we let them exist.

Bukowski's education consisted of a year in the journalism program at Las Angeles City College after graduating high school. His high school career began at the Susan Miller Dorsey High School although he transferred to Los Angeles High School for his second year. He left home, and college, when his abusive father read some of his work, and threw the younger Bukowski's things out of the house. Shortly afterward, Bukowski attempted living in New York, but disliked it enough to leave shortly after to return to Los Angeles.

After his move back to Los Angeles, Bukowski had different lovers and girlfriends, being married to three different women – once to Jane Cooney Baker, although they reunited later, and once to Barbara Fry, both ending in divorce. He had a daughter, Marina Louise, with Frances Smith in 1963, but they quit living together two years later. In 1972, he began his on and off affair with Linda King. His third wife was another Linda, specifically Linda Lee Beighle. They married on August 18, 1985, and remained together until his death. It was during their marriage and his illness with leukemia that he became enthralled with felines, and the Bukowskis had several during their almost-ten year marriage.

Holding several different jobs over the years, his longest running one was at the post office. After he left, he wrote a novel about it, and it is one of his more famous works. Other jobs he held included working at a gas station, different clothing stores, in auto parts manufacturing, at a picture frame factory, different department stores, and a wire wheels plant, among others. His eclectic work history shows his adaptability and his love of life, and the people in it, quite well.

Charles Bukowski was not read widely in the United States until after his death, but had a large audience overseas, particularly in Europe. Even while he was battling cancer at the end, he still took the time and the energy to squeeze out as much life as he could from what he was given. He wrote until almost the very end, with many manuscripts found after his death. Writing on topics that were too early for most of society, but still pertinent to the ills and problems of society, especially the poor among us, he gave them a voice, although it was usually his own through a distorted autobiographical viewpoint. He was an average man living an average life, and he sought to influence others to be unashamed of who they were and of what they did. 

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